Is the world any closer to destroying itself now than it was a year ago? According to the nuclear and world-climate experts who advise the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the answer is a complicated yes and no. But the complexity didn’t deter the organization from sending President Barack Obama a letter that’s critical of the progress his Administration is making on preventing global catastrophe.

Last year, the scientists wrote to Obama, “was a year in which the problems of the world pressed forward, but too many of its citizens stood back. In the U.S. elections the focus was ‘the economy, stupid,’ with barely a word about the severe long-term trends that threaten the population’s well-being to a far greater extent: climate change, the continuing menace of nuclear oblivion, and the vulnerabilities of the world’s energy sources.”

Each year, the Chicago-based Bulletin convenes a forum of scientists to help decide whether to adjust the hand of the Doomsday Clock, a warning symbol that has appeared on the cover of the magazine, and now its Web site, since 1947. At the beginning of 2012, the Bulletin announced it would move the clock’s hand from 6 minutes to midnight to 5 minutes to midnight – a warning that, all risks taken together, civilization was inching steadily closer to annihilation. Risks now considered are nuclear war, global warming, the threat of nuclear power plant mishaps, and potential emerging threats such as bioterrorism.

The annual “Doomsday Clock Symposium” was held in late November, and the decision of the organization’s Science and Security Board to keep the clock’s hand at 5 minutes to midnight, at least for another year, was announced in January. The reasoning behind the decision not to change the clock, despite the progressive worsening of certain global risks, was outlined in an open letter from the Bulletin to President Obama. It was the first time that the decision regarding the clock took the form of a letter to a U.S. president. The communication to the president largely was an appeal for bolder, more decisive action rather than congratulations for what he already may have achieved.

While the Bulletin did praise Obama for his continued support of New START (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), the nuclear arms reduction agreement between the U.S. and Russia that became effective in February 2011, the group’s leaders were critical of “unrealized opportunities” to make even more serious cuts in nuclear stockpiles. The Bulletin also said the U.S. should make more progress to take its nuclear weapons off high-alert status, and to stop the spread of fissile materials that can be used by terrorists or hostile nations to make weapons of mass destruction.

The Bulletin is calling on the U.S. to cut nuclear stockpiles beyond the terms of New START so that each side has fewer than 1,000 deployed strategic warheads. Under the treaty, the U.S. and Russia are permitted to have a total of 1,550 warheads deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The organization also is calling for quantities of non-deployed strategic warheads to be “significantly reduced,” and for tactical nuclear warheads to be completely put out of commission.

Tactical nuclear weapons, which generally are less powerful and are considered “battlefield” weapons, are not covered by New START. According to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the U.S. in 2011 was thought to have about 500 tactical nuclear warheads deployed in Europe, as well about 700 to 800 more tactical nuclear warheads in storage. It was estimated by the Federation of the Atomic Scientists that Russia had as many as 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads deployed and more than 3,000 in storage or retired in 2010.

In addition, the Bulletin wants the Obama administration to seriously question if all three legs of the nation’s nuclear “Triad” – ICBMs, bomber jets, and nuclear submarines – are necessary to national defense, arguing that maintaining redundant systems is “an expensive legacy of a bygone era.” The administration should “fundamentally restructure” the Triad as a way of making more extreme reductions in the nation’s deployed nuclear warheads, the Bulletin told Obama. This process should include cuts in the number of warheads on submarines and bombers as a signal to the world that the U.S. is interested in peace, the magazine said.

The letter to Obama did not address international concerns that Iran is moving closer to achieving nuclear weapons capability. At the symposium in November in Washington, however, John Polanyi, chemistry professor at the University of Toronto, recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1986, and a leading arms control advocate, said proliferation of nuclear weapons to more countries, including Iran, “surely adds to the risk of nuclear war.”

Nonetheless, Polanyi told fellow scientists that Obama’s recent assurances that the U.S. will do whatever’s necessary to prevent Iran from gaining such weapons do not add to the cause of peace, and that preemptive strikes to prevent other countries from gaining nuclear weapons are based on the philosophy that “might makes right” or “the law of the jungle.” Polanyi noted that the U.S. refrained from taking military action to prevent nations such as the Soviet Union, India, Pakistan or North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Polanyi added that the notion that all nuclear nations might someday peacefully agree to international control over their weapons stockpiles may seem hard to imagine, but is “not preposterous.” There is no “divine right of nations to behave as they please,” he said, noting that in 1945 the original member states of the United Nations agreed to the UN Charter’s specification that nations are prohibited from attacking other UN member states – a recognition that war must only be declared for purposes of self-defense.  Thus, there is precedent that national leaders may be willing to give up power to ensure international peace and security, Polanyi said.

On the issue of preventing fissile materials from falling into hostile hands, the Bulletin called for the U.S. to “rejuvenate and expand” international efforts to get control of both civilian and military stores of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. The organization warned that approximately 2,000 tons of fissile materials are not yet safeguarded, and that theoretically such an amount could be incorporated into “several hundred thousand” nuclear bombs.

The U.S. needs to put all missile materials not currently in warheads under the control of international monitoring and, in cooperation with other nuclear nations, declare a moratorium on making more fissile materials for weapons until a permanent Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty is signed, the Bulletin told Obama.

The cut-off treaty is a proposal to ban worldwide any more production of materials that can be used to make nuclear weapons and related devices. Although in the early 1990s the UN General Assembly voted that such a treaty should be negotiated internationally, the agreement has failed to become reality as various nations have disagreed on verification and other terms.

The organization also addressed the dangers of climate change, reminding Obama that 2012 was the hottest year on record for the continental U.S.  While praising the U.S. government for spurring some progress in promoting alternative energy sources, those advances have been “dwarfed” by unchecked expansion in fossil fuel production, such as coal, tar sands, oil shale, and shale gas, the Bulletin said.

Obama must pursue the expansion of natural gas resource development, tempered by careful regulation to prevent methane leakage, water pollution, and other harmful environmental side effects, the letter said.

The president in general needs to “confidently face those who irresponsibly argue that climate change science is not relevant” and instead listen attentively to knowledgeable experts who are charged with making recommendations to the government about climate change, it said.

Daniel Kammen, professor of public policy and nuclear engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, told symposium attendees that China and the U.S. lead the world in greenhouse gas pollution, with China releasing the most pollutants overall but the U.S. leading by far in per capita pollution. In 2007, China emitted nearly 7,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, while the U.S. emitted almost 6,000 million metric tons. When figured per capita, however, the U.S.  was responsible for about 23 tons of carbon dioxide per person, as opposed to just 5 tons per person for China (2005 figures).

China has declared a goal of reaching 11.4 percent of its national energy consumption from non-fossil fuels by 2017, through increasing use of such alternative fuel sources as wind turbines, various types of solar energy, and hydroelectric power. Kammen said it’s unclear if that goal can be reached.

The Doomsday Clock has been adjusted 20 times since 1947 to reflect increasing or decreasing perceived dangers to world peace, and, more recently, climatic stability. It was initially set at 7 minutes to midnight in 1947, and reached its closest position to “doomsday” in 1953, when the Bulletin set it at 2 minutes to midnight to convey alarm and dread over the explosion of the first thermonuclear device by the U.S. in 1952, followed in suit by the Soviets with a test of an H-bomb several months later.  The farthest the clock’s hand has been moved away from midnight was in 1991, after the Cold War ended, arms limitations agreements were reached between the U.S. and Russia, and each nation removed most missiles and bombers from high alert.

The clock was moved from 6 minutes to midnight to 5 minutes to midnight in January 2012 because, the Bulletin said, “the potential for nuclear weapons use in regional conflicts in the Middle East, Northeast Asia and South Asia are alarming; safer nuclear reactor designs need to be developed and built, and more stringent oversight, training, and attention are needed to prevent future disasters; [and] the pace of technological solutions to address climate change may not be adequate to meet the hardships that large-scale disruption of the climate portends.”

Robert Kazel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and was a participant in the 2012 NAPF Peace Leadership Workshop.